Squeezing the last juices out of ‘next-gen’ – Part 1: Free flow combat

Careful observers (well, virtually all observers excluding the usual over excited fanboy monkeys) of the game market noticed some time ago, that the phrase ‘next-gen’ – the standard two word hype machine, is devaluating rapidly regarding today’s games.

The outflow of cash from many consumer sectors, games included, hindered the creative, experiment side of development. Now more than ever it makes sense to do yet another Guitar Hero N+1 (where N is the number of the last incarnation that dried your wallet without offering any real innovation whatsoever. No wait – new achievements! Woohoo!) than tinker with some fresh idea or genre reboot Michel Ancel style. Simply because – some pool of income is generally associated with a sequel of a popular franchise, while new IPs always come with a bigger or smaller variable of unknown in sales. The newest sad materialization of this trend are the crappy sales of what was game of the year 2008 for me – Mirror’s Edge (but those two are entirely separate topics to which I may come back to someday).

Of course, gamedev being what it is – a business after all, there’s nothing wrong with playing it safe to some degree. Meaning even Kojima wouldn’t get founds for translating one of those awesome Japanese shows to the consoles (or is that the secret project that’s going to be announced Monday? I shudder to think).

That being said, as Nirvana once proved it could be mainstream while staying true to its punk roots (don’t say ‘grunge’ or I’ll kill you bad), there is still room for innovation enveloped within standard ‘selling’ genre concepts. One of the more prominent example of this is the very young Rocksteady Studios’ adaptation of the Batman franchise – Arkham Asylum. Already called ‘the first true Batman game in sixteen years’ (ah, the Sega Genesis days…), this one really shows promise, as finally Batman gets to use explosives, the batarang, larch onto gargoyle heads with his zip line and be stealthy and beat the living crap out of thugs… all in one game! Christmas has come early this year kids. And the beating bit, something fairly close to my heart, is what I wanted to exemplify proving that mindful analysis of an IP – it’s strengths and ‘what makes its audience tick’ by skilled gameplay designers and programmers can lead to public interest (let’s not call it ‘profit’ just yet, not to jinx it) just as well as a new Rock Band: Bon Jovi’s High School Hair Challenged Years (\m/).

Here’s the video link in HD, courtesy of the boys at Gamersyde: http://www.gamersyde.com/news_7826_en.html

Or… if you’re a non quality oriented infidel (and I weep for your soul), the stream link (believe it or not, youtube is going absolutely nanners as I write this post, for the first time I can remember – ‘servers down’ messages, broken search and whatnot. Scary. Maybe France is expanding its new ‘Pirates… it’s coming right for us!’ policy?) :

http://www.gamersyde.com/stream_10904_en.html

Ok, so now that you’ve got that warm fuzzy ‘wow, I might actually rent this thing’ feeling, let’s do a little dissection and see what this baby manages to pull off.

The ‘free form’ concept of combat in action games is as old as the Aztecs. Basically, what it means is the player can input a combo string and direct each attack into a different enemy instead of having to wait for the animation’s end while the hero is ‘locked’ in it. The aim is to make the protagonist ‘flow’ in a ballet of attacks rather than look like a melee crash test dummy and to achieve a movie-level seamless choreography. In recent history, two examples of titles struggling to get this right come to mind: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time from Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed… also from Ubisoft (sic). The former one did a relatively nice job, considering it’s been conceived in 2003 for the past-gen Jade engine (yet, Ubi still uses it, they must be hella environment friendly, recycling like that). However, what was as I remember really aggravating, both in terms of combat and exploration, was a invisible, yet tangible grid the Prince moved on. You could never execute a move in let’s say 28 degrees north, the engine clearly used only right angles to simplify collision deduction, which made you struggle with the controller more times you would wish for a product bought for entertainment. Secondly, the animation stringing itself was a bit clunky, as the system would end one animation, then input a split second (but visible) gap in which it waited for the next command. Simply put the system was not as fluid as one would want, but again… that was 2003 so let’s cut them some slack. To their credit, the time rewind tech featured in the game was something of voodoo magic back then.

Now Assassin’s Creed. Something probably most of us have played and remember dully. Waltz anyone? While I would generally agree that a armed assassin with his back to the wall is an opponent to be treated with caution, the system ‘one of us guys attacks, others watch’ just didn’t work. As you’d have to dispatch one foe with a flurry of attacks, then switch to the next one – dispatch, then (…) again and again, the whole thing became repetitive and boring after awhile. The whole ‘free flow’ concept was lost, even if amidst a sound theoretic of the battlefield. Worse still, were the developers’ cheap tricks, something people should be boiled in pitch for, as later in the game the enemies blocked 98% of your normal attacks and had to be taken down with counter attacks – one of the game’s selling points (or at least Ubi thought so, maybe due to millions invested in mo-cap). And – the counters were randomized, which would be easier to swallow if not… again… in the later hours of the game the system would ‘randomly’ pick the one counter which didn’t finish off the opponent, aggravatingly prolonging each encounter. Freedom? BS. Let’s just take this out of the way then – this is not a way to showcase a feature of your game, no matter how cool you think it is! Jade…! :)

From the top of my head, there was also a title called The Mark of Kri for the PS2. What was interesting about this one was the lock-on system. You’d create an arch with the right thumbstick and thus highlight enemies around you, automatically assigning consecutive fire buttons to each one. Then, while being encompassed with enemies, the player needed to tap a button for the enemy he wanted to attack, then ‘transferring’ the rest of the combo to the next enemy simply mashing the other corresponding button. Simple, yet maybe limiting to the moves the character could do. Didn’t play it though, so I can’t deliberate too much if it really worked or not.

And now we come back to Bats’ new adventure (it was recently delayed to ‘end of summer 2009’, yes – make it shine!). Same as AC, the enemies swarm you and try to position themselves as close as possible to take advantage of a window of opportunity. Unlike Creed however, they generally seem more aggressive, as most will charge at you in a football fashion if you’re too far away (they are after all thugs, which doesn’t mean eleventh century crusaders have to exercise restraint in battle) and as Mr. Hill, game director of the game said, break your moves if you pick the one’s unsuitable (too long to execute) for the occasion. Moreover, one can really feel the actual flow here, as it seems all animations were created so that any given one can seamlessly transition to the other. Diversity you can exercise in your approach – counters, instant takedowns, throws, environment usage, weapons etc., combined with a hefty dose of adrenaline for the player as he needs to constantly watch his back, gives a feeling of being a martial arts’ master in control by successfully evading and taking countermeasures – the tradeoff that free flow is all about. Third is the mindful, modest use of Hollywood tricks like slow-mo and dramatic camera angles, not in each_and_every_counter_you_perform as in AC, thus being all the more meaningful and pleasant to watch. Last but not least – the mo-caped moves themselves are well executed, clearly by a skilled stuntman and downright brutal at that, which is what Batman is at its core all about (the game will get a ‘T’ ESRB rating none the less, as elbow breaks and crushing a guy’s face with a lead pipe will clearly not harm kiddie’s minds like boobs). Still, we have yet to test it hands-on, and also see if the rest of gameplay lives up to its promise (here’s part 1 of the dev diary – stealth – if you haven’t seen it), but what Rocksteady showed so far is in my opinion an excellent attempt to enrich the gameplay of a game while still playing it safe for the publisher. After all, what’s not to love about a brutal stealth / action brawler featuring Batman and NO Robin/Mr. Freeze/Poison Ivy but classical enemies like the Joker or Bane from the Dixon/Moench/Nolan era.

So people – let’s be supportive and keep our fingers crossed for the London based studio, as they near the game’s completion. Stay frosty Rocksteady… or else you might wind up with a Predator locked on to your asses for screwing this up!

BTW – since we’re in the subject of Batman, here’s a funny quote I came across from Reid Schneider, producer of the 2001 Batman Gotham City Racer, probably the most pitiful and disgraceful attempt at a Batman themed videogame ever:

“Then there was Batman Gotham City Racers, which taught Schneider such skills as ‘how to pull people’s names off the credits when they were freaking out.’”

Well duh, Reid. There are some things you just don’t get yourself into, no matter what the devil pays.

Full article here.

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~ by Pawel Wyslowski on May 17, 2009.

2 Responses to “Squeezing the last juices out of ‘next-gen’ – Part 1: Free flow combat”

  1. Creed’s combat system was a failure. I mean – you could win all fights with the ubercounter. Pity, because with better combat, less-reppetitive-more-stealthy missions and no sci-fi plotline this could have been one hell of a game. Medieval parkour was fun.
    Oh! Why, oh why do you consider Mirrors Edge game of the year 2008 I won’t understand.
    Cheers.

  2. Though I agree with Assassin’s Creed in the later part of the game and the final boss battle, up until the journey for the final Assassin you don’t need to fight more than a handful of people unless you’re one of the few that actually ran through the streets and needed citizens to protect you.

    On Batman: AA, Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze are indeed in this game, as are 19 other villains.

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